Lousada, Better, Faster, Stronger: Max Lousada - The Music Week Interview

Lousada, Better, Faster, Stronger: Max Lousada - The Music Week Interview

In the week that the 2020 Music Week Awards were scheduled to take place, we're revisiting Strat winners of previous years. 

At 44, Max Lousada – Warner Music Group’s CEO, recorded music – is one of the youngest winners of the Music Week Strat Award. But he’s already packed a lifetime’s work into his game-changing career, and he’s only just getting started. In an exclusive interview, Music Week charts his rise from South London to the pinnacle of the industry…

Max Lousada is used to being the talk of the Music Week Awards.

In the years when he was running Atlantic UK and then Warner Music UK, he and his teams were regular visitors to the podium.

And then last year, the news that he had secured the top job at Warner Music Group dropped just as most MWAs attendees were getting in their cabs or sipping their first drink of the evening.

That promotion kept him in New York for the evening in 2017, but he still managed to be a big talking point (“I thought that would add an element of conversation to the evening,” he quips). The Music Week Awards, in short, is in his blood.

“It’s always interesting to put all your competition in one room and feed them alcohol!” he laughs, settling down in his Warner Music London office (he also has one in New York in his new transatlantic role as CEO, recorded music).

“Having an awards show that celebrates commercial teams, digital teams, marketing campaigns, A&R, labels… All the functions within the journey of delivering great music, it’s great for people who are the best in those fields.

Them being recognised is important, both in terms of being profiled to the company they currently work at and being profiled to others that could give them opportunities or relationships that they previously didn’t have. It’s always been really important.”

Lousada and his teams have, over the years, been voted the best in many of those categories. But none of them quite compare to the 2018 Music Week Awards, when he became the 32nd winner of the Strat Award, the lifetime achievement gong that has become the most prestigious industry award out there.

“Accepting awards when you run record companies and your whole career has been about promoting your team or promoting the artist or delivering hits or building careers, can be an odd one,” he notes.

“You don’t get into it to be on the front of the stage, you do it to build cultures and environments. But it’s great, it’s fun. It feels like a rite of passage.”

On the night, Lousada was presented with the gong by Dua Lipa, one of the artists his company has helped catapult to global stardom, at Phil Christie’s Warner Bros.

As with many of his biggest successes, she was far from an overnight sensation, but arrived at her current status through talent, hard work, perseverance – and no little backing from Team WMG.

It’s a story that Lousada has watched unfold many times, but also one that has special relevance to his own story.

His journey to the top of the music industry may have been relatively rapid compared to some, but that doesn’t mean it’s been straightforward.

So let’s step out of the glittering edifices of Kensington and Manhattan and head for the chicken shops and council estates of sarf London, to a time when the young Max, and his haircut, were both in rather different places…

Max Lousada grew up in Tooting Bec, South London. He attended the Elliott School in Putney, now famous for spawning the likes of The xx, Hot Chip, The Maccabees, Burial and So Solid Crew.

“It was a brilliant school,” he says. “It was a comp in the middle of a South London estate but you were mixing with people from all different backgrounds.”

The school helped ignite a love of music already fuelled by his political activist father, who would regularly take the young Max to demos and political rallies where Billy Bragg or Paul Weller or members of The Clash would perform.

“As a kid I used to sell the Socialist Workers Party newspaper on the Elephant & Castle estate,” he remembers.

“When I was eight or nine, that would be my Saturday mornings, walking around these council estates selling political newspapers.

During the Thatcher era there became an apathy to politics but, pre that, there was a real healthy discourse between people. You’d knock on people’s doors and sell them a newspaper and that would be either really positive or really negative, but it was a debate where everyone cared and had an opinion.”

Lousada also immersed himself in the music of the time, trawling the reggae and hip-hop shops of South London, although he also enjoyed a youthful flirtation with one more surprising genre.

“At school, fashion and music really defined you, it was so intrinsic to your identity,” he says. “You wore your tribe; visibly wore what you were listening to. And at 13, 14, I was listening to King Kurt and a lot of rockabilly and therefore used to turn up at school in winklepickers, ripped jeans and a Mohican – that was my look at school!”

Later, a rather more dapper Lousada attended the University Of Brighton where, on his very first day, he met AJ and Joe from trip-hop band RPM, who became one of the first signings to Mo’ Wax Records.

Together, they immersed themselves in Brighton’s burgeoning dance music scene, hanging out at beach raves or the Jazz Rooms or The Zap. Lousada dropped out of college after six months, but stayed in Brighton and stayed on the scene.

“It was,” he says today, “The first conscious decision that I had, in terms of dedicating an element of my life to the music business. I was 19 or 20 and not knowing where I was going to land or end up.”

So he got his hustle on, running club nights and making connections with the likes of Skint Records, Fatboy Slim, Talkin’ Loud and Ninja Tune.

“There were a lot of artists growing up at the same time and a great independent scene, both in London and Brighton,” he enthuses.

“There was a whole scene that was influenced by hip-hop, dance music and club culture and that was really how the journey started.”

Eventually, Lousada and some of his fellow youthful music entrepreneurs came together in a loose music and fashion collective called In A Silent Way, after their favourite Miles Davis album.

Part management company, part distribution hub, part Adidas shelltoe trainers import-export operation, he would phone up record shops and play them Delicious Vinyl records and French hip-hop releases down the phone to convince them to take a few copies.

Local graffiti artists drove the delivery vans, but it was Lousada who got the crash course in the music industry.

“We grew a business and built credibility,” he says. “One of the lessons was about how to grow while being more flexible in your creation. We built a whole indie network.”

Part of that network was Rawkus Records, the emerging New York hip-hop/drum and bass label whose records were in high demand amongst the UK cognoscenti.

In A Silent Way slowly unravelled as the collective became less collected, and Lousada worked for various other small indies and record shops before starting his own instrumental electronic imprint, Ultimate Dilemma.

But he soon realised that wasn’t enough to survive and hooked up with Rawkus founders Brian Brater and Jarret Myer to run the label outside North America, in parallel with his other projects.

That gave him the opportunity to work with Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch, while Lousada’s connections – many of the Brighton scene now found themselves in ever-more senior positions in the industry – helped the label’s UK profile and they became one of the first tenants in the Old Truman Brewery building on Brick Lane (“The only other person was [composer/producer] Talvin Singh who had his studio above me – there was no Rough Trade, just one café!”).

Lousada says he was aware that the label was funded by News International and had a label partner in the form of Mushroom Records but adds: “We were fiercely independent. We believed we were the cool kids and had an element of credibility and snobbishness about who we would work for.

To some extent, Mushroom represented an indie, guitar-led label and that felt awkward to us.”
Until one day, when then-Mushroom UK boss Korda Marshall, now of BMG fame, knocked on the door and introduced himself.

“Korda came in, was very sympathetic and supportive and it felt like a really good opportunity to start working with a wider team,” says Lousada.

“Everyone at Rawkus was wearing double hats. The idea of going to work for this company that had accounts and business affairs and video commissioners – that was going to be really interesting.

“It was an amazing time to run such a hot independent but again I hit that point of growth,” he adds. “We were very much a backpacking hip-hop label that was growing really quickly.

We were starting to have success but we weren’t really running it as a business, we were running it as the most incredible sweetshop where we could sign and work with people.”

So Lousada moved out of the now-populated Truman Brewery and moved in with Mushroom in Fulham. Mushroom funded Ultimate Dilemma and Lousada signed his first hit act, Zero 7, whose 2001 debut album, Simple Things, was nominated for the Mercury Prize.

That raised his profile as an A&R man within the wider company and, by the time Rawkus was sold to MCA in 2002, he was Mushroom’s head of A&R.

“That was thrilling and showed a lot of confidence and faith from Korda,” he says. “Within five or six weeks he was like, ‘Go and make the Ash album’. I’d never made a guitar-based record and Ash were a big deal.”

He coped with that challenge and was soon involved with Garbage, My Vitriol and Muse as well as making connections with execs such as Stuart Camp (now Ed Sheeran’s manager) that still serve him well today.

So, when Mushroom was sold to Warner Music in 2003 and Marshall was given the job of revitalising East West Records, Lousada went with him, the archetypal indie poacher turned major label gamekeeper.

The pair rebranded East West as Atlantic to bring it in line with the US (Lousada speaks fondly of many New York lunches spent getting to know label founder Ahmet Ertegün as part of the integration process).

At the time, Warner UK had a less-than-stellar rep for homegrown successes, but Atlantic went on a run, breaking The Darkness, Funeral For A Friend and even Goldie Lookin’ Chain.

In 2005, Marshall moved across to Warner Bros to try and work his magic there and, to Lousada’s own surprise, then Warner UK chairman Nick Phillips turned to the label’s hotshot A&R guy as Marshall’s successor.

“I don’t know how, because I was the youngest MD by a long way, but they gave me Atlantic Records,” he laughs. Then reality kicked in.

“I remember looking at the schedule because Korda took Muse and some of our staple artists with him and left me with the second Darkness album and some challenges, as well as a quiet North American release schedule…”

The second Darkness album, you may remember, was a colossal flop, leaving Lousada to turn to an unlikely figure in search of a hit to prove his worth.

“I looked at the roster and realised there were some songs I really felt could connect,” he says. “That turned out to be James Blunt’s Back To Bedlam, which went on to sell 13-14 million copies [worldwide].

But what was a real lesson and a lesson that I’ve kept throughout [my career] was, You’re Beautiful was the fourth single. We were maybe half a million down, I’d probably spent £300,000 on TV advertising to sell 7,000 records. Those were the days!

“But I believed out of necessity and I could see there was this real connection; every show he was selling was getting more and more sticky and bigger and bigger.

Eventually, it just took off and selling 13m, having the biggest-selling act that year, really established me as the head of a label. That amount of success was quite intoxicating and we had a huge period of feeling like everything was going to work…”

Another lesson of Lousada’s career is that you have to enjoy those hot streaks when they come along. So Hard-Fi and Paolo Nutini sold millions, impressing the new Warner hierarchy of Edgar Bronfman and Lyor Cohen and helping Lousada rise to Atlantic chairman, while permanently burying the notion that Warner was all about US artists.

“What I’m really proud of is, over the last decade, we’re very much seen as a mature A&R artist destination both to deliver success in the UK and globally,” he says.

“We were, at the time, less aggressive, less successful and still had lots of pressure to succeed. There were a lot of tailwinds to that!”

Soon after that, Lousada had tailwinds of his own to deal with, as Atlantic UK went, in his words, “cold”. Fortunately, his bosses’ support held firm.

“I’ve been very fortunate to – whether it was Edgar Bronfman or Korda Marshall or Lyor Cohen – have worked with some amazing people.

Nick Phillips was the first person who said, ‘You can run a label’. If it wasn’t for Roger Ames buying Mushroom Records and Nick having the confidence in a 29-year-old from an independent background to run a frontline label…”

He drifts off, perhaps unwilling to contemplate what might have happened next. What did happen, of course, was Lousada guiding Atlantic back to the good times with Ed Sheeran, Birdy, Plan B and Rudimental and the launch of Asylum UK under Ben Cook before, in 2013, becoming CEO of Warner UK, just ahead of the Parlophone Label Group being brought into Warner from Universal as part of the EMI divestment.

That gave Lousada a third frontline label to play with, as well as the chance to work with artists such as Coldplay, Tinie Tempah and Damon Albarn.

“It felt like the right time for a creative challenge,” he says. “Being the UK CEO was very different and yet the same; it was about creating a collective vision of what we stood for, trying to create an identity, bringing in and supporting not just the artists, but also the careers of the people.

Really, it came down to delivering a culture and a point of view that our artists and our staff could all resonate with and start to differentiate ourselves in the UK.”

Lousada is a ball of energy in person, always several thoughts ahead of where both the industry paradigm and the current conversation stand and, unlike some senior execs, he’s as keen on asking questions as he is on answering them.

He stresses that, even as the big boss, the music business remains “about putting one great record next to another great record”.

But his tenure in charge of Warner UK saw him oversee much more than Ed Sheeran’s ascent to global superstardom, Coldplay’s reinvention as streaming sensations or the emergence of Clean Bandit, Royal Blood, Anne-Marie, Jess Glynne and Dua Lipa. He successfully integrated Parlophone (“That was exciting, like putting the right football team together, but it was also challenging, because it created a lot of uncertainty for a moment”).

He revived East West, somewhat ironically given his role in its disappearance, as a powerhouse entertainment division and beefed up ADA’s services operation under Dan Chalmers. He launched The Firepit, Warner’s content division and start-up incubator (“Technology can change and influence music so I wanted a place where, if people want to launch an app or work with AR or VR, there were some specialisms”).

And, perhaps most importantly, he turned Warner – for so long seemingly content to be a distant No.3 in the UK major league table – into serious contenders, growing market share across the board and bringing hit after hit after hit. It was an eye-catching performance – and it wasn’t just Warner’s eye that it caught…

Before Lousada was made CEO of recorded music in 2017, he was heavily linked with the Columbia US job vacated by Rob Stringer on his own way to the CEO role at Sony Music. So what actually happened?

“It was coming up to 18 months [left] on my contract and I was starting to think about what I wanted to do with my career,” he says.

“Len [Blavatnik, Warner owner] and Steve [Cooper, WMG CEO] have only been incredibly supportive about my journey and were starting to talk about the options. Andthen I had a really great option to workforanothercompany, which was flattering and thrilling

Which I obviously decided not to do, but that crystalised my timetable of when I had to start making decisions. Steve took the view that we were now in a place where global recorded music needed to have a next chapter and it felt like a structure that was futureproof. So I took over…”

And what a takeover it’s been. On day two, he made a leadership change at Warner Bros US, replacing Cameron Strang with Aaron Bay-Schuck and Tom Corson (“What was I doing on day one? I was suddenly coming to the realisation that I was announcing this on day two!”).

That created a seemingly unstoppable momentum that has seen him relaunch Sire Records; buy Spinnin’ Records; install Mark Mitchell at Parlophone UK; open up Warner Music Middle East; sign Sia, Stormzy and Kenny Chesney; make Ed Sheeran the biggest artist in the world; and help Warner smash it at the Grammys and the BRITs.

In short, Lousada has crammed more into six months than some CEOs do in their entire tenure. And that’s why, as Strat-winners go, he is still more inclined to look forward than to look back.

There is still much to talk about, so Music Week decides to enter into a quickfire round of questioning…

After your indie background, why has Warner proved to be such a good fit for you?

“I still feel as an executive that I have indie bones in my body. Warner has supported entrepreneurs and creatives and always understood, from back in the day with Warner Bros and Mo [Ostin] and Lenny [Waronker], about giving artists creative freedom but still having influence on their success and their careers.

I’ve always liked treating the artist with respect and passion. I want our teams to be in it with the act. I want to believe in their dreams and I want to convince people about why these artists are important, whether that’s an alternative act, a rhythmic act, a pop act, an urban act or a novelty song.

I want to approach those opportunities and moments with verve and passion, because these are artists’ careers. Warner has always been that kind of environment and I’ve always responded to that. It’s also big enough to have global impact, but small enough to navigate and that reduces an element of politics – and I’ve never been one for politics.

I haven’t had the experience of Universal or Sony so I can’t really comment on it, but Warner has always felt a lot less political, which is good. I always like to describe a company as a team rather than a family, because a team has to keep on moulding and changing to reflect either the competition or the opportunity or the challenges.

And, as a team, Warner will keep evolving and making sure that we have the right people to serve the artists and the needs of the culture that we stand for.”

How did you have to evolve as an executive to take on big, more commercial roles?

“I don’t think that being artist-friendly and running a big company are things that can’t co-exist. They co-exist pretty well. I had to learn to give people the freedom to run with the ball, because there are just too many balls!

Running a major UK company, you have to lead from the front on how we move into content or technology. You have to excite the company to adopt it, because adoption and change is moving so fast.

So there needs to be credibility in the initiatives that you’re putting in place, both for your team and for the needs of the artists.

That was really exciting to identify. But because I came from running a label, being an A&R guy or selling at telesales, I understand the needs. I’m not coming from a detached point of view, I’m coming as an operator who understands how the mechanics of a record company work and how you have to win some battles and lose some battles.

Our artists talk back, right? Music is our product but it’s not a static, unemotional thing and you, as an organisation, have to respect that, applaud it and support it. You have to show that you’re willing to do that at the very top through those decisions.

So I actually think that executives respond well to that artists-first, fans-first culture. Artists will see that you stick with a career. A lot of people go, ‘Wow, Dua Lipa looked like an overnight success’ – but New Rules was her fifth single.

That culture of supporting a label when they’re that deep in, for them not to feel that pressure, is my job. And to support them because we believe in her. That’s what a great record company is: it has the ability to hold firm when all this other noise is going on because we have a vision and a belief.”

How important has Ed Sheeran been to WMG’s success?

“It’s really helped the confidence and the power of Atlantic, both from an A&R and promotional context, and as proof of concept. Our ability to say that you can sign to a Warner label and deliver some of the biggest global statistics has been brilliant.

The team who work with Ed just do the most incredible job and it’s a real team between Ed, Stuart [Camp, Sheeran’s manager] and Ben [Cook, Atlantic UK president] and the label. It’s been thrilling to be part of that from the inception.

Stuart and Ed did a lot of the building blocks at the start independently but understood that, at a certain point, if they were going to keep on moving, they wanted to build a team. It’s a similar rationale for Stormzy.

He’s done an incredible amount independently by himself, but he also has come to realise that he wants a wider team that have influence and institutional knowledge but also respect his freedom, his identity and his point of view.”

Running Warner worldwide must seem like a long way from running an indie distributor in Brighton…

“It’s mental! But it’s felt natural because I moved into an organisation where I understand the architecture and that I really believe in.

I’ve always found it hard to sell or be a part of something that I’m not really into. I believe Warner is positioned so that it gives us a really great opportunity for success.

I believe in the individuals within the UK company or Craig [Kallman] and Julie [Greenwald] in Atlantic US or Stu [Bergen] who runs international or Berndt [Dopp] who runs the German company or Thierry [Chassagne] who runs the French company, these are brilliant executives that I would love to work for, who now work for me, and they’re critical to the successful future of this organisation.”

How important is market share to you?

“Market share growth is one indicator of the health of a company. I do believe, when you’ve been in this long enough, there are cycles that ebb and flow. There are going to be some quieter years, but I’m confident enough in the team and the musicality of the organisation and the expertise of delivery that we will keep on being seen as delivering success for our artists. And the by-product of that will be growth.”

Given the digital revolution, some people might be surprised that major labels are still needed…
“It’s really exciting that artists, managers and labels have a lot of options.

The reality is that we have to have a very clear value proposition of what a music company stands for, and that value proposition has to be authentic to what the artist and the manager need.

Whether it’s Kenny Chesney signing to Nashville, or Stormzy signing to Atlantic UK or Sia signing to Atlantic US, it’s all recognition of what those artists individually need or aspire to or want. We are on a journey of looking at what being global from day one really looks like.

What are the amplification abilities of a major company that can help differentiate itself in the market place? What are the proprietary technology and data sets that are going to benefit artists’ careers?

Having competition both from the independent sector and the DSPs is going to really tighten music companies up. A&R is always going to be critical for certain types of acts. Strategic marketing and investment has a real value in looking at the rhythm of releases and how to optimise a record across various different platforms and how to articulate and communicate a record through a streaming ecosystem.

We live in an attention economy and an attention economy has to be fed; you have to create cut-through. I remember when iTunes launched, everyone had the same argument: ‘What’s the point of a record company now you’ve got iTunes?’

But, with the exception of a few artists, you still need them a lot. Yes, the traditional superpowers of radio and TV are diminishing and we have to offset the diminishing with other superpowers that can make a difference and that people give a shit about.”

Is A&R a very different process in the streaming era?

“Yes. The competitiveness of A&R is at an all-time high. The ability to see success coming is easier. Probably the ability to analyse what that success means in a long tail is better, so there is an element of less risk, but the volume that you need to work with is higher, so that adds to the complexity.

Because of the visibility of repertoire coming in, whether that’s through social platforms or digital distributors or digital platforms, it means the competitiveness is that much greater and the artist’s options are much greater.

I want Warner to have as many routes into it as possible. If you’re a bedroom producer who wants demo time, you can come to the studio. If you’re an independent label that needs straight distribution, you can sign to ADA.

If you want distribution and services you can do ADA, with a relationship with one of the frontline labels. If you’re Ed Sheeran or Dua Lipa, you can sign direct to the label. If you’re Pink Floyd or David Bowie and you want your catalogue curated in a contemporary and dynamic way, you can go to Rhino.

That ethos of being there at every stage of an artist’s career is really important to what we stand for now, and what we will stand for tomorrow.

The commercial aspect of deal-making evolves and both artist and label always want to do a fair trade, but it’s really about making sure that there is a collective vision and respect.”

The business is in a great place right now, but do you see any challenges ahead?

“Complacency is always a challenge when a narrative is about continuous growth. Because yes, subscriber growth is [constant] but that isn’t always replicated in value. You want your partners to be making money and to be healthy and futureproof.

We want a diverse pool of partners, we don’t want a monopoly or two or three. We want to establish the value that we have in our deals to our artists and that is something that we’ll continue to work on.

But the enthusiasm to bring in a new skillset and a new breed of digital-first executives, it’s wildly exciting how they can influence the make-up of the company.

That’s thrilling, because there was a period of time when great people didn’t want to be in the music industry. But our ability to track some of the brightest minds in the world is now huge.”

With the world opening up, could the music business actually be bigger than ever before?

“It’s important when you look at the future not to forget the fundamentals. We still have to deliver a song that emotes value and we still have to build a career that’s sustainable.

But you’re right, it’s now in a place where there’s an uptick and that growth gives enthusiasm and bravery for opportunity. My ability to create a content division and a technology division wouldn’t have been possible five years ago.”

How important is the post-IPO success of Spotify?

“I don’t worry specifically about what Spotify’s next moves are. I worry because I care about the industry. I worry about us having independently owned-and-operated solutions that we can control and I want to have a clearer direct-to-consumer relationship with the fans. I see all of these as opportunities, because I haven’t resolved them yet.”

Would you like WMG to have its own streaming service?

“Not necessarily a streaming service, but I want the ability to influence culture, in whatever guise that is. And a lot changes. You see the Morgan Stanley predictions that the music industry will be worth X in 13 years time.

Well, a lot happened in the previous 13 years that we couldn’t predict. What is my worry? That we become overly reliant on one format shift when actually it’s a seismic cultural shift and we don’t fully represent that in the make-up of our companies.”

So, where would you like Warner’s business to be in five years’ time?

“I want to be known to be able to really influence culture as a music company and to have the ability to service the aspiring beatmaker or guitarist or singer-songwriter and have a global solution to get his or her music and art shared.

And to be with them for the rest of their career in whatever guise or relationship he needs. I want Warner to be seen to create a rich offering that is very dynamic and different from our competition. The definition of success will be that we have a very clear identity.

The fact that we’re privately owned and can buy, build and change at our own speed and to our own agenda means we’re uniquely placed.”

And with that, it’s time for Lousada to return to his day jobs – yup, he still plans on running Warner UK alongside his global role for the foreseeable future.

“I’m looking forward to going on this global journey with everyone who’s in the ship with me currently and everyone who’s about to join,” he smiles, as he sees us out.

It’s been a mighty long journey from flogging socialist newspapers on South London council estates to selling incredible music around the world and winning the industry’s ultimate accolade, the Music Week Strat Award.

But, somehow, you suspect Max Lousada will be the talk of a lot more Music Week Awards shows yet...

This article was originally published on 30/04/2018.


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